Shorty never expected to be a legend nor did he ever in his dreams think 100 years later he'd still be remembered.
Legends live on only through those that care to hold on to them. The death of a cowboy a century ago still sparks interest because someone cared to honor it.
Not much is known about Shorty except that he lies in a roadside grave on the west side of New Mexico State Highway 54 near Oscuro which is about 15 miles south of Carrizozo. R.L. "Shorty" Lee, thought to be about 20 years old, was a Bar W Ranch cowboy working for W.C. McDonald, New Mexico's first governor. Shorty and some other cowboys were moving cattle when a thunderstorm brought a deadly lightning strike to a single spot on a vast plain. Shorty and another cowboy, their horses and seven head of cattle were killed by the lightning. With no known relatives, Shorty was buried near where he fell, along what was then only a trail.
When the trail became a highway, W.W. Gallacher, Sr. of the Carrizozo Gallacher Ranches, was instrumental in keeping the highway department from moving Shorty's grave. Gallacher, as a young man, had known Shorty and fought to keep his resting place honored.
The white picket fence around the site is long gone, worn by the wind and weather. A few stands of wire, some old posts and tumbleweeds are what remain.
A few years ago, at the request of White Oaks writer, storyteller and cowboy Walt Birdsong, the New Mexico Department of Transportation placed a sign at the grave site to mark it.
The sign now stands forlornly on the dry, sandy, sage-covered ground where Shorty fell.
During his quest for research to find out more about Shorty, as well as locate any family the cowboy might have had, Walt wrote a poem about Shorty:
Shorty Lee --A Bar W Cowboy
Here lies a cowboy named Shorty Lee
If I'd been born when I should'a, it could'a been me.
Shorty rode the range through a thunderstorm's force.
Blue lightning came down, killed him and his horse.
Now both of em's buried right here in the ground
And mighty few folks know where they can be found.
Just north of Oscuro, beside the blacktop,
Hundreds go by but damn few of 'em stop.
At the little old cross that marks his last home,
Just a simple wood cross, not even a stone.
I didn't know the cowboy name Shorty Lee
But if I'd been born when I shoulda', it could'a been me.
~ Walt Birdsong 9-30-03
One hundred years later, because we know and because we can, we give a moment of silence to a fallen cowboy, because like Walt said, it could have been me.
- Text by Julie Carter